Remembrance

We spent a weekend in Dorset at a friend's house. Their house was once three separate barns that were joined last century. Some of the walls and windows maintain their barn-ness in charming and draft-permitting ways. When I asked about the origins of the house they responded, "oh it's not old. it's from the early 1800's." Another reminder of how young America is. 

This family has 4 dogs and 5 chickens. The dogs: Tinkerbell, Flossie, Echo, and Pomme. The chickens: Mrs. Bennett, Katherine, Dusty Springfield, Dolly, and Jenny. 

On Sunday, we went to a Day of Remembrance service at the parish church. During the service, the names of the parish's World War I dead were read aloud. Several of the boys on the roster shared the same surname. Imagine the grief those mothers felt. Imagine what it is to die in a trench.

I imagined the ghosts of the boys. Were they buried on the continent or at home? Are ghosts bound to the place they died? What do the dead make of this National Rememberance, 100 years later. In Our Town, which is running at the Almedia Theatre this month, the Stage Manager tell us:

The dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long. Gradually, gradually, they lose hold of the earth . . . and the ambitions they had . . . and the pleasures they had . . . and the things they suffered . . . and the people they loved.

They get weaned away from earth — that’s the way I put it, — weaned away.

And they stay here while the earth part of ‘em burns away, burns out; and all that time they slowly get indifferent to what’s going on in Grover’s Corners.

They’re waiting. They’re waiting for something that they feel is comin’. Something important, and great. Aren’t they waiting for the eternal part of them to come out clear?

Some of the things they’re going to say maybe’ll hurt your feelings — but that’s the way it is: mother’n daughter . . . husband’n wife . . . enemy ‘n enemy . . . money ‘n miser . . . all those terribly important things kind of grow pale around here. And what’s left when memory’s gone, and your identity?

If that's the case, what do the World War I dead think of our remembrance? What do they make of the 888,246 ceramic poppies filling the moat of the Tower of London? Do they know that there's one flower for each of them?

In Washington, DC, the city where I grew up, I'd often visit Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial. The simple listing of those names -- like the poppy installation -- is profound in its metaphorical representation of the cost of war. But it's profound to us, the living, the left-behind. Do the dead remember their names? Do they care that we are hell-bent to memorialize them?

Paula Vogel often asks writers to walk through cemeteries and find individual names that stand out to them. We then write imagined moments from the lives of those names. There's a profound responsibility imbued in that writing process, communing with the names of the dead. It adds a pulse to the work, too. The specificity of the names, I think, is what does it. This was a person. Let me imagine their life. 

My stepfather, George Arvid Peterson, died 6 years ago this month. He had a virulent form of brain cancer that stripped him of much of his individuality before it finally killed him. I was in the room when he died. Though I was in deep shock as he took his last breath, I also am sure that I felt his soul move through me on its way somewhere else. My mother believes George's soul found its way into a red tailed hawk that came to visit her the following morning and days thereafter. Our family belief that George came back as a hawk was the seed for my play Fox Play

The immediacy of George's death has passed. I do not think I miss him less frequently, but the longing has moved to the back of my brain. I remember him more acutely this time of year as the anniversary of his death approaches. What does he remember? Does he remember his name? 

I miss you, George.